He was born a peasant in Paphlagonia, out of the way in northern Anatolia. Uneducated. Forger of coins, although he called himself a money-changer. His older brother John had obtained a job at the imperial palace in Constantinople as parakoimomenos of the women’s quarters.
Then one day John invited his little brother to the palace. He was only a teenager, or a boy, but was destined to great things. Empress Zoe, 40 years her senior, was instantly infatuated with his handsomeness and the two became lovers while Emperor Romanus still roamed around the palace.
But fortune had decided that this epileptic boy of humble origins should become basileus, and Romanus had the strangest of accidents one day: he drowned while taking a bath. The very next day, the boy was crowned emperor.
Contrary to everyone’s expectations, the new emperor proved an able statesman. Poised, industrious, valiant, committed to the well-being of the empire. J.J. Norwich tells us that
In his presence, the baseness of his origins and his shameful path to the throne [he was suspect for the death of Romanus] were alike forgotten. Men were conscious only of his intelligence, his gentleness of manner and his obviously genuine desire to serve his Empire to the best of his ability; and those who knew him well had nothing but admiration for the courage with which he struggled against his two cruellest handicaps – his health and his family.
And fortune again decided. This handsome young basileus developed a severe case of edema. Hideously disfigured, his legs swollen with gangrene, barely able to move, he mounted his horse and led his army to crush the Bulgars in Thessalonica in 1041. A dying man, only 30 years old, he returned in triumph to Constantinople.
Then the final time arrived. He had himself carried to his own monastery of SS Cosmas and Damian, stripped off his imperial clothes and diadem, and donned the robes of a simple monk.
He refused to be seen by his wife in his final hours.
Michael IV the Paphlagonian.